Giraffe have always been special to me. Even with long, gangly limbs, they move with unhurried poise and confidence, but still look endearing with their huge eyes and long eyelashes.
On TV this week there was a repeat of an episode in Attenborough’s Natural World series: Africa’s Gentle Giants. The story centred on Dr Julian Fennessy, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Fennessy has been working to conserve giraffe for more than 20 years, and is a true pioneer in research on this secretive and surprisingly little-known animal.
Many people, including myself until very recently, are naïve to the true situation that wild giraffe currently face. Among other African species such as elephants, gorillas and leopards, for some reason giraffe have taken a backseat in the public eye. While words like “beautiful” and “majestic” always spring to mind when we talk about giraffe, how many of us could confidently say how many there were? I was shocked to discover how wrong I was when giraffe statistics were presented alongside those of another African giant. Currently, there are around 500,000 African elephants left, but only 90,000 giraffe. For the first time ever, I doubted what David Attenborough was telling me. How could that be possible? I began to look online, but of course it was true. There are nearly five times as many African elephants than giraffe left on the planet. It’s a statistic that astounded me.
Giraffe are not only unmistakable symbols of Africa and the tallest animal on Earth, but they are important to the ecosystem. Like bees, giraffe are excellent pollinators, and pass pollen from tree to tree as they graze. They also spread seeds in their dung, another vital part of maintaining a diverse and sustainable landscape. Conserving giraffe protects not only the animal but its environment, ultimately affecting so many other species that call Africa home.
In two decades, giraffe numbers have fallen by 40% and they have become extinct in seven countries. They are hunted for meat and their habitats are slowly disappearing. One of the most vulnerable populations – a group of less than a thousand Rothschild’s giraffe – lives in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. These animals are walking on a literal time bomb; beneath their feet lies 75% of Uganda’s discovered oil, and Fennessy knew that plans to drill would spell disaster for these endangered animals. His ambitious and dangerous mission was to relocate twenty giraffe from one side of the River Nile to the other, where it was hoped that these pioneering individuals would start a new population in a safer location.
As I watched the team of dedicated vets, rangers and scientists attempt to move one-ton animals whose kick could decapitate a man, I was filled with such admiration and respect. It is all very commendable to donate money to charity, but these people were out in conflict areas risking their lives for giraffe. As the mission progressed, I got quite emotional, not just because the threats these beautiful animals face are so unnecessary and unjust, but because I was completely unaware. What little chance these animals have if even wildlife enthusiasts like me don’t know their situation.
It wasn’t just the numbers of giraffe that I was unaware of; so much of their behaviour remains unseen to even experts like Fennessy who have studied them for a vast proportion of their lives. By the Hoanib River in northwest Namibia, he took a sensitive camera out to film giraffe at night. As he watched, a giraffe curled up on the exposed ground and fell asleep. It was something Fennessy had never witnessed before.
“In zoos they study it,” he explained, “Basically when their neck is down it’s REM sleep, so maybe these giraffe are dreaming. I’ve never seen that in the wild.”
The fact that we don’t know how wild giraffe sleep says a lot about how overlooked they are. It seems there is the assumption that because we don’t hear about a particular animal as much, it must be doing fine. However, in the case of the giraffe this couldn’t be further from the truth. So why do we know so little about these animals? Perhaps it is because they are only listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. An article published two years ago, at the time that this episode was first released, hopes that the work Fennessy is doing will help change the status of giraffe to “Endangered” or “Critically Endangered” and therefore encourage greater conservation efforts. Unfortunately, as 2018 draws to a close, the giraffe is still listed as “Vulnerable”. I can only hope that this change in status does come into effect to raise awareness of this silent and rapid extinction that is passing so many of us by, or soon it may be too late.
*Natural World “Giraffe: Africa’s Gentle Giants.” (2016) BBC. 23rd June.